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Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue BWV 903
Italian Concerto BWV 971
2-Part Inventions BWV 772-786
French Suites BWV 814-817
James Friskin (Piano)
Bach Keyboard Music from James Friskin


J. S. Bach: Masterpieces for Solo Piano


Two-Part Inventions (15), BWV 772-786 [21:15]
French Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 814 [11:39]
French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815 [10:07]
French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 [14:42]
French Suite No. 6 in E major, BWV 817 [12:08]
Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 [11:18]
Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971 [13:10]
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 [44:51]

James Friskin (Piano)

The Bach Guild / Vanguard Classics / Artemis Classics

1954; Mar 1956 [BWV 988]

2-CD / TT: 139:34

Recorded at Vanguard's New York City Studios, NY , USA; Masonic Temple, Brooklyn, NY, USA [BWV 988].
Review: Bach Keyboard Music from James Friskin
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Donald Satz wrote (October 31, 2003):
Goldberg Variations: Gould/Sony(3), Tureck/DG/Philips, Schiff/ECM
Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue: Rubsam/Naxos, Koroliov/Hänssler, Hewitt/Hyperion
Italian Concerto: Hewitt/DG, Banowetz/Naxos
Inventions: P. Serkin/RCA, Gould/Sony
French Suites: Hewitt/Hyperion, Gavrilov/EMI

Never having heard of James Friskin, I did some internet searches without coming up with much information. Friskin has written a book on music instruction and likely has been a teacher as well as performer - that's about it. However, I did find an unrelated tidbit of information that's interesting. In May 2001, the Northport Arts Coalition sponsored a concert where 32 different pianists played one piece each of the Goldberg Variations. In April 2002, another concert took place where 34 pianists played one piece each of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. How's that for an intense "mix and match" performance session? I imagine the logistics of it all must have been formidable, but there are always challenges when you embark on unusual missions.

If you look at the heading above, you might notice that Friskin plays a great deal of music for only two discs' worth. For example, the first disc has two other Bach works in addition to the Goldberg Variations. Since Friskin isn't a particularly speedy man, that only leaves skipped repeats as the source reason. Of course, in the 1950's, eschewing repeats in Bach's music was fairly common, so Friskin needs to be forgiven for leaving them out.

I started out with Friskin's performance of the Goldberg Variations, and one could carp about three particular items. First, the upper voices are often reticient compared to the lower ones. I initially thought the reason might be the sound engineering, but additional listening leaves me feeling that Friskin is largely responsible for the effect. Second, he doesn't make much of an attempt to dig into the underside of human thought; the "Black Pearl" variation and a few others clearly reveal a less than incisive examination of the music. Third, Friskin is a long distance from being a virtuoso; he sounds challenged with some of the intricate passage work, and he seems to play it 'safe' sometimes in order to disguise technical shortcomings.

Does the above make Friskin's verson non-competitive? Not at all. Since I enjoy his Aria and each of the variations, there is surely something in his interpretations that is offsetting the negative features I mentioned. That something is 'rhythm, swing, and pacing'. Among pianists, neither Tureck, Gould, Perahia, nor Hewitt have it. Actually, the only other piano version I know that is in Friskin's rhythmic league comes from András Schiff on his new ECM disc. Times definitely have been good as of late.

With its sharp contours, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue is ideally suited for the harpsichord, but there are a few excellent piano versions including the three I list in the heading. Rubsam is especially distinctive with his strong punctuation of notes and extensive use of a mild staccato. To my total surprise, Friskin eclipses these three versions and delivers the best Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue on record. I have not encountered such urgency and tension in this work, and Friskin's performance of the Fantasy's recitative is absolutely spellbinding with its tension and exceptional dialogue among voices. Rubsam may be a thinking man's Bach, but Friskin is right in the middle of the family dynamics. Also, the technical challenges I brought up with Friskin's Goldbergs don't seem to exist now (studio recording), and the rhythmic swing remains alluring. I finally have a piano version of the work worthy of standing next to the satanic harpsichord version by Igor Kipnis on Arabesque.

The Italian Concerto goes well for Friskin in that everything is in place and his rhythms are still enticing. However, he could be called rather subdued in the extroverted and exciting outer movements, and he certainly can't match the fire-power of Banowetz's 3rd Movement. Also, Angela Hewitt has no peers in providing an intense sadness to the 2nd Movement, and her weeping middle voice cries out to be heard. By the way, this is the Hewitt performance on Deutsche Grammophon that came out quite a few years before her Hyperion recording. If you don't feel strongly impacted by her 2nd Movement, you're listening to the wrong version.

As with the works on Disc 1, Friskin continues to sound like a mighty fine Bach pianist in the Two Part Inventions and the four programmed French Suites. Mr. Friskin offers no frills or mannerisms, just an 'honest and true' portrayal of the most outstanding composer of Western Civilization. To have the most rewarding piano version of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue on the market is just icing on the cake. Sound quality is quite good for the time period. There is a background hiss, but it
isn't obtrusive in the least. Further, the notes ring out with fine clarity and definition. One last thing - no track timings are provided.

Don's Conclusions: Friskin's performances are excellent throughout and attain greatness in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. I think that serious Bach record collectors would love to have the set, and those new to Bach will gain much pleasure and insight from the interpretations. I acquired Friskin's set on a hunch, and this is one time that my expectations were easily exceeded. The Vanguard 2-CD set costs less than two Naxos CDs. Go for it!


Feedback to the Review

Leila Batarseh wrote (December 9, 2003):
[To Donald Satz] If anybody wants a "second opinion" on this set, Jed Distler's review is up at Classics Today:
(Actually, the two reviews don't disagree at all. But some of the details discussed are different.)


James Friskin: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach Keyboard Music from James Friskin

Instrumental Works: Recordings, Reviews & Discussions - Main Page | Order of Discussion
Recording Reviews of Instrumental Works: Main Page | Organ | Keyboard | Solo Instrumental | Chamber | Orchestral, MO, AOF
Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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